So many of the couples who come to me for marriage counseling share that they are “spiritual” but don’t know what it means to them. Many of them have grown up going to church but for various reasons, they have drifted away from the religious practices of their childhoods. Most of them want to believe in something, but can’t quite reconcile what they have been told to believe in church vs what the modern world tells them to believe.
I love to learn about world religions and spiritual concepts. My studies have taken me from my family roots in the Catholic and Eastern Othodox churches to the ancient concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Native American traditions and beyond. I continuously seek out the common threads of each through myth and ritual and bring them into my belief system and while allowing myself to let other beliefs and practices go when they no longer serve me. Through over 25 years of study, I have realized that it is not necessary to define the ultimate religion, or uphold traditions just for traditions sake, but to reach ultimate truth though a connection to the Divine itself.
For thousands of years, humanity has passionately pursued the Truth — the ultimate answers to life and the Universe. This knowledge constitutes the answers to what are often called the soul questions:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- What is my purpose?
- What is the meaning of life?
Historically, from the perspective of the soul, there have been two foundational routes to discover these truths: religion and spirituality. Although they have many similarities and there is a relationship between the two, there are differences between religion and spirituality.
By definition, religion is a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; the service and worship of God or the supernatural. One of the hallmarks of religion is its organization. It is a structured, rule-based construct that to some degree governs the behavior of its members. Moral rules, laws, and doctrines, as well as specific codes and criteria, create the organized structure that contains the religion’s specific belief system. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In previous, more uncertain times, the rules and dogma of organized religion helped to give society a sense of certainty and helped to guide and comfort those whose faith was lacking. Religions are by nature often deeply rooted in tradition, ritual, creed, and doctrine. Religious institutions conservatively guard their practices and values, holding rigidly to the past and the original interpretations of the founder’s teachings.
Religion that teaches us how we are to think and feel about the world does not allow us room to grow into our own understanding of life and the world. For example, many religious authorities are currently teaching members of their community how they should view politics and how to vote. Rather than trusting and even encouraging the membership to educate themselves on the world and to search their own souls, they are telling them how to think and feel. And they are adding that to think and feel any other way is wrong, or sinful. And they are further adding unique and frightening prophecies about what it will mean for the world if the membership doesn’t vote as they instruct. This is not only oppression, but it is spiritual and religious abuse. Yet many followers of these external leaders are too afraid to even consider any other option.
Spirituality, on the other hand, connotes an experience of connection to something larger than you; living everyday life in a reverent and sacred manner. Spirituality though, breaks free from the restrictions and rigid structure sometimes associated with traditional religion. The spiritual aspirant recognizes that he or she is on a “pathless path” of self-discovery. They are following not a set of external rules, but their own inner call to spirit. In this way, spirituality can sometimes feel like a rebellious act of going solo and leaving the tribe.
Spirituality is a very personal and individual journey into the inner terrain of one’s own soul. The person on such a spiritual journey may use all manner of external tools to facilitate that journey—including attendance to a church, temple, or mosque, and/or reading of certain sacred texts, and/or joining and engaging with others in various spiritual practices, and/or spending time in one-on-one conversation or counseling by and with certain spiritual leaders. But the person on the journey is deciding on the direction of the journey; it is not being decided on for him by external authorities or texts.
Spirituality allows a person to come to terms with life on life’s terms. It allows one to process through difficult experiences and become stronger and wiser because one stayed conscious as one walked through the experience. Spirituality allows one to develop healthy self-esteem and to respect and appreciate the journey of others. Spirituality encourages one to walk through the deep recesses of the heart, mind, and soul and come to know one’s Self in deep communion with a Higher Power or philosophy of one’s choice. Spirituality enhances the quality of life of the individual practitioner.
For a religious person, the concept of God is predetermined, named, and comes with a set method on how to worship that God. A spiritual person, on the other hand, turns inwards to find their truth and finds God within themselves and all of life. When someone is spiritual, they have a connection with themselves and life on a soul level. And ‘God’ isn’t an external force like in most religions. It is nice to include the structure of religion and the freedom of spirituality in your daily life….in whatever way makes you feel inspired, connected and fulfilled.
So what does spirituality have to do with your marriage?
If you love the teachings of a certain religion, and they ring true for you, then by all means weave them into your life. But if something just doesn’t feel right to you, it is up to you to find another path that does……..
While it certainly is not necessary for either of you to go to church if that isn’t your thing, it is important to realize that your relationship with your spouse is a direct vehicle to the Divine. Marriage is one of the most profound opportunities for personal growth out there, and I encourage you to allow your relationship to teach you how to be a better person. More humble, more compassionate, more patient, more purposeful. When you find the truth of Divine Love in your life…..
And what is this ultimate truth? Most spiritual “gurus” will tell you that the truth is we are all ONE. God is everything, everywhere, eternal. Therefore God works through you and through your partner in your relationship. Whenever we are challenged by our partners or comforted by them, it is the grace of the Divine that is either pushing you to break through your wounds and patterns, or holding you in safety so you can gather your strength and share love right back. If we can each see the other as a way that the Divine speaks to you, shows you your faults, helps you grow, cradles your spirit – and that you are doing the same for them – then we can evolve on an inner level in a way that is more direct, dynamic and desirable than any other spiritual path.
I want you to think of your vehicle to help you evolve on a soul level. It is a way to feel accepted for all your gifts, flaws and experiences, and a way to offer your partner the compassion and support that you seek. Be of service to your partner’s needs as if you were indeed serving someone divine and holy. Because you are doing just that in your relationship.
As you can see, there are noticeable distinctions between spirituality vs. religion; however, these comparisons aren’t meant to be absolutes or an attempt to polarize one against the other. Religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs differ in the ways in which they are practiced. However, each practice serves as a vehicle to lead you closer to the truth you seek. Whichever path or combination of the two you follow is the personal and subjective expression of your journey of awakening.
Religion that teaches us that we must rely completely on external advice or external books—as opposed to listening to the urging of one’s own soul—is a religion that is destructive to mental health. Certainly, external advice can be useful, but only in the case in which the person receiving that advice authentically agrees with that advice. Certainly, sacred texts are useful, but the interpretations of those texts should be processed through the mind, heart, and soul of each individual, rather than set down as final truth by an external authority.
When an external authority, be it a book, a person, or a religion, has final control over everything we do, say, and think, it is impossible for us to find and begin to live out of our own truest, deepest souls. We live oppressed by the external authority—this is definitely not good for mental health. It is the same as if a government came in and told us how to think, feel, believe, and act. The external authority has final and absolute control. Where, then, are our original thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions? Rather we must learn to find our own internal authority and come to trust its guidance—that is true spirituality.